Tag Archives: depression

Sanity is relative

Recently I held Zoom call with a cousin that lives in Florida. His parents were my favorite aunt and uncle during my youth. They ran the farm on which my mother grew up. My father grew up on a farm right down the road and they met as kids and married after World War II. Then our family history began.

We lived through all the typical vagaries of families in America. My dad was in and out of work as an electrical engineer. My mom carried us through by teaching elementary school for 20+ years. There were hints of an affair by my father at one point, but my parents stuck it out for all of us. Four boys. All athletes. All creative. We lost a sister during childbirth between my next eldest brother and I. We seldom talked about any of that.

The hand-built chest created by my late grandfather Leo Nichols.

Instead, our family’s move from the East to the Midwest left us all without much contact with our relatives. That meant I never heard much about the rest of our family history from other perspectives. Our parents didn’t tell us that much either. More likely, we weren’t that interested in listening. Too preoccupied with sports and hormones.

Family history eventually does catch up with us all. It would be decades before I realized that my dad’s father suffered through the loss of his wife to sepsis after a breast cancer surgery. Or that he lost his farm in the Depression, then lost a store and another mate, and ultimately succumbed to deep depression requiring an institutional stay. All that family history was locked away in the Let’s Not Mention It Chest.

By the time it finally emerged, I’d long come to recognize symptoms of anxiety, depression, and some anger issues in myself. I met with counselors to help me sort it all out. Over time, I adopted coping strategies and gained cognitive perspective on triggers and traps that send people into ruminative thinking. That is the centripetal force of anxiety and depression. It is its own Black Hole.

While talking with my cousin about mental health on my father’s side of the family, he mentioned that anxiety and depression were ‘well-documented’ on my mother’s side as well. “Your grandfather was depressive,” he told me. “His father was worse.”

Finding out that ancestors dealt with mental health issues seems depressing, but in many respects, the opposite is true. I believe that knowing family history when it comes to mental health is a vital tool for living a healthy life. If you know the lay of the land, it is much easier to navigate it.

The same goes for attention-deficit disorders. I wish that someone sat me down during those early years, even in grade school, to explain that my mind works differently than other people. I already knew that from dealing with boredom and distraction in the classroom. I’d have welcomed the chance to address those issues with an adult who was honest with me, maybe even encouraging. Let’s be realistic: kids are much smarter about their own brains than most people realize.

My method of coping largely involved pouring energy into creative outlets such as art, painting or exercise. I could feel my brain engage and then relax while doing those things.

These days, psychologists often recommend art therapy and exercise to give people with ADD, anxiety or other mental health issues a healthy way to wick off distracted energy.

Even at a young age, I knew that I could often do the work if given the chance to get my brain on task. My fourth grade teacher understood that, and I thrived with good grades all year. The next year, my teacher was a stiff-necked disciplinarian who wanted nothing to do with creativity. Just learn.

Being to just “sit still and do it” was the opposite of how my mind worked, or what it needed. I rebelled at times, sometimes aggressively in the childhood manner of fighting back in various ways. That was an instinct exacerbated by a domineering father who probably suffered from ADD, anxiety and depression as well. He likely hated seeing the same symptoms in his children, even if he didn’t fully understand the source of his frustration.

So these cycles of relative sanity versus ruminative negativity are difficult to identify and cure. But it can be done. That is why I still find it fascinating to talk with a long-lost relative and hear about how people who came before us dealt with life’s challenges, and there were many.

The thing that sustains me through self-analysis and confession is the knowledge that while my relatives and ancestors faced sometimes significant challenges, they also worked hard to lead productive lives. My mother’s father was a farmer. He also a highly cultured man, encouraging my mother’s musical talents. He even hand-built her a violin that she took to Potsdam College in Upstate New York to become a music teacher. Decades later, my daughter Emily Joan (named after both her grandmothers) learned to play on that instrument before we purchased her a better instrument during her progression in music.

The other thing that I retain from the grandfather who built the violin is a hand-constructed chest made out of wood, tin and metal fasteners. I think about the talent and care that went into building that chest, and the home-grown knowledge of how to do it. The leather strap handles are long since gone, but I can lift that chest and know that the hands of a man I never met were what built it. There’s value in that.

The real meaning of home plate

One of my favorite places in the world to visit as a child was my uncle’s farm in Bainbridge, New York. The farm was full of activity. Cows to milk. Manure to shovel. Tractors to ride.

There were also frogs to capture. Birds to watch. Fish to catch in the Susquehanna River.

Nichols farm.jpgAnd one summer day after my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Kermit had come to visit our home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was sad to see them leave. So I blurted out, “I want to come with you.”

I recall glances being exchanged, and quick conversation. Several years before, my aunt and uncle had taken care of me when my mother experienced complications from the breach birth of my younger brother.

So it wasn’t like I was running off with strangers. I loved them.

But somewhere in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, my heart began to sink. I’d been packed and sent off in their car with nary a goodbye to my parents. I think they were coming up  to visit a week or so later. So it had all been planned out.

By the time we got to the farm in Bainbridge, I was an emotional wreck. These days I know what role anxiety plays in my brain. Back then, homesickness was a combination of anxiety and loss of familiarity. The feeling of being separated from my parents at such a young age, I was six or so, sent me down a rabbit hole of grief and longing for home.

Homesick 

That feeling of homesickness caught up to me at other stages in life. When we moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois, I was only thirteen years old and left all my friends from grade school and middle school behind. For months, I grieved that loss. My best friend in the world back in Pennsylvania was hurting too. We sat together on the elevated tee of a golf course and he said, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”

So homesickness is not always tied to a place. It can afflict you from any sense of loss. When parents die there is a sense of homesickness about the entire world. To lose a child, I am told, is as bad or worse.

And thinking back to that aching sense of loneliness as a child, when I missed my home in the wake of that decision to run off with my aunt and uncle to their farm in New York, I realize it was the suddenness that brought about homesickness. Our minds and hearts depend on predictability. To some extent, that is all we have in the world. Routine keeps us grounded. Familiarity makes us feel safe. That is why anxiety is such a difficult mental disorder to treat. Those with anxiety create worries beyond reality. 

Which means simple events such as going away to college can bring on homesickness, because there is a relationship between anxiety and being homesick. One week you’re fighting against the control of your parents and the next, you miss it so.

A trip to a foreign country can also make you yearn to be back home. When the adventure wears off, the wires of your soul are exposed. It acts like a negative charge. Ridiculous things seem suddenly important. You want a cheeseburger. Just a taste of home will do. 

There are some people who say the entire human race is homesick for a relationship with God. That all of us exist, for lack of a better description, in a state of temporal homesickness. That’s why people say the dead are “going home” to God.

Others deny that need at all. They credit it to sentiment. Yet it is said that everyone prays in a foxhole. Or when people get sick, they pray in hopes of a cure. We look for answers beyond our own understanding in such circumstances.

The real meaning of home runs

America’s former favorite pastime, the game of baseball, centers around an object called “home plate.” It is a nothing more than a rubber square with a triangle back. Yet it has such significance. 

A player that hits a home run circles the bases of the infield and receives great cheers when he or she touches home plate again. This cycle is repeated thousands, even millions of times each year in the games of baseball and softball. Everything about the game is measured and precise, and it all centers around home plate. The distance between bases in all four turns is 90 feet, and winds up at home plate. The length of the foul line to the outfield wall is measured from home plate. The gap between the pitchers mound and home plate is just over sixty feet. People that love baseball know these things. They don’t have to recite them ad infinitum to appreciate them. There is no creed to the game like there is in other religions. And baseball is a religion of sorts. It is the homiest of sports. 

Throwing the knuckler

I was a baseball pitcher through the age of seventeen years old. When I walk through a nearby park where there are two baseball fields, there are often lost balls to be found. When I pick up a lost baseball these days I hold it up and either throw it back or take it home. In either case, it reminds me of youth.

I loved being the center of attention and in control of the game. Like all pitchers, I made my own luck on the mound. That meant I developed a set of pitches to help me be successful. I had a slider, a curve, a fastball and a sinker. And if I was brave, I even threw the knuckleball.

That last pitch was a challenge to learn and to throw. It took practice, and my brothers and I would throw knucklers back and forth with my dad. That’s how we learned. The knuckleball is also known as a floater. If thrown correctly, it wobbles and bobs based on the way the seams interact with the air. A perfect knuckler actually has no spin on it. That’s why it is so hard to throw.

But it’s risky to throw a knuckler because sometimes they don’t work. They just go slow and straight over home plate. When that happens, you get clobbered.  Yet for some reason, I’ve always been willing to take such risks in life. 

The right kind of pride about oddballs

Knuckleballers are an odd lot in baseball. The game, as a rule, does not like or tolerate them. They throw too slow to fit the speed-driven nature of baseball. Knuckleballers are thus liberals among fields full of conservatives. Knuckleballers break the rules of physics and baseball with every pitch they throw. When they are on their game, knuckleballers can be impossible to hit. Even the pitcher and catcher do not know where the ball will wind up. And how beautiful is that?

Given my love of the dichotomy between status quo and unpredictability, it has been hard sometimes in life to behave the way that the engineers of baseball and life want me to behave. I can be winning 7-1 with only three outs to go, and still want to try throwing the knuckleball in the ninth inning to prove that I’ve got the guts to do it. It was the same in basketball with behind the back passes and dribbles. It made the game more fun and exciting. My personal hero was Pistol Pete Maravich. He could probably have thrown a knuckleball with a basketball. And in my world, that is perfection. As it was, I learned to spin the basketball on my finger because Pistol Pete could do it. That’s a skill to entertain children and sometimes adults, but has absolutely no other use in the world. 

Wild instincts

Those knuckleball instincts were what made me run away with my aunt and uncle all those years ago, throwing caution to the wind and jumping in their car to head for the New York hills. Those wild instincts are also the reason I like escaping to the wilderness to look for birds, and go running or riding much farther or in worse conditions than I should. People who don’t piece those occupations together in me do not fully recognize the person that I am. These wild instincts have cost me at times, but I’m still proud of them because they prove that I have not given up. Still trying to learn new pitches. 

Making sudden decisions has always been part of my nature. Throwing the knuckler when it is much safer to just put the ball across home plate and let your fielders back you up in case the batter connects is the smart decision at times. And I’ve done that enough to enjoy a few victories. 

But I’ve also lost some things in life that perhaps I coulda (shoulda) won by taking unnecessary (or stupid) risks. But I don’t think any of those situations were wasted.

Because by contrast, I’ve met plenty of staid people who are rich or comfortable, but still unsatisfied. That’s true in business and in love, where there are no guarantees of happiness. So you have to take risks to find them. 

Risk versus adversity

I’ve taken some chances in standing up against adversity that felt like a knuckleball was being thrown my way. My late wife’s cancer was a knuckler we never saw coming. But for eight years we kept swinging and hitting it back as long as we could. We got to be pros at it. And they say that a pro baseball player is a success if they can get a hit three times out of ten at-bats. We made it eight years before the knuckler fooled us for the last time. We batted .800. I have to call that a victory. 

Yet it still feels like a failure in some respects. It makes me angry that my children lost their mother. And I don’t deal all that well with anger. I’m competitive and have had to discipline myself into understanding success is measured in different ways. Yet anger is a still the knuckleball that makes me flail away at life. It’s hard to throw it without hurting someone else, and just as hard to hit when it comes your way. Anger is the one pitch that still vexes me. But I’m learning to take some pitches. And that helps.

The right kind of pride about our flaws

Dealing with the unpredictability of life on that order can be tough. The even more difficult aspect of dealing with life’s knuckleballs is in how you respond when one of them comes at you.  Flailing away can make it tougher rather than just “taking the pitch” and hoping it’s not a strike. Just like in baseball, people expect you to show self-control at the plate, use “emotional intelligence,” (an oxymoron?) and behave a certain way because your character and training and prior response all say you should know better than to swing at balls outside home plate. Yet we still do it. 

None of us is perfect. No pro baseball player has even hit .400 for a season since Ted Williams. That’s proof enough that we all take chances in the course of life. But just as often, we take chances that are a reflection of our changing character and a desire to create change where it is needed. That swing of the bat can also cause pain to yourself, and to others. 

But we have to keep swinging.

The right kind of pride about homesickness

For many years, I was ashamed of that bout of homesickness that struck me as a child. But these days, I am a bit proud of that six-year-old kid. For taking chances. For loving enough to want to express himself. But also for admitting, when the homesickness hit so hard, that he was not strong enough to fight through it all.

I have long quoted a saying that applies in all such circumstances. It is almost a palindrome of a phrase if you study it in theory. It goes like this: “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.”

That’s true by choice, and it’s true by circumstance. Sometimes it is really hard to tell the difference. And that’s when I throw the knuckler.